Newsletter July 2016

 July 2016

Do Reptiles Dream?


Do other animals dream? Dreaming is usually associated with REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, but isn’t this sleeping pattern limited to mammals? You may be surprised to learn that at least one reptile has joined this exclusive club. The bearded dragon, a popular pet, undergoes deep sleep and has shown signs of REM sleep. The sleep rhythm of these lizards is faster and more regular than that of humans. Thus, they exhibit hundreds of shorter cycles of slow wave sleep and REM. However, this activity occurs in a different part of the brain than in humans and other mammals. But the patterns are similar enough to indicate a common (dreamy?) ancestor shared between lizards, birds and mammals. Researchers estimate this ancestor evolved between 300 and 320 million years ago when the earth was a single landmass; this ancestor probably had a lizard-like appearance.


In order to study lizard sleep, researchers placed electrodes on the surface of five bearded dragons’ brains. These electrodes recorded evidence of the lizards experiencing the exact same stages of sleep that humans go through. These stages are slow-wave sleep, sharp waves, ripples, and rapid eye movement (REM). This was unexpected; there had been no previous research on the sleep patterns of any animals other than mammals and birds. The aim of the study was to better understand the evolution of sleep. Bearded dragons were selected as test subjects due to their relatedness to birds. Because the lizards exhibited these patterns, scientists can conclude that the patterns evolved further back in time than had previously been thought. Until this study, it was believed that human sleep patterns were relatively new evolutions. Many hypothesized that these patterns would not be found in more primitive animals, such as reptiles.


Why do lizards experience these cycles and stages of sleep? Scientists still don’t have a definite answer; in fact, we don’t really know why humans experience them either.


With the knowledge that lizard sleep is so similar to human sleep, you may be wondering whether lizards dream. REM sleep is often associated with dreaming, as well as some of the other neurological processes observed in lizards. It’s hard to definitively say that lizards can dream but if they do - what are they dreaming of? Their sleep patterns are very similar to those of humans, so we’re guessing the answer is warm, sunny beaches, palm trees, and tropical drinks.


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Training Your Cat


Have you ever seen a cat being walked on a leash? It’s really not that extraordinary; there is a common misconception that cats are not capable or willing to be trained and that they cannot learn to respond to commands or do tricks. However, this stereotype couldn’t be more wrong. Cat training isn’t fundamentally any different from dog training, although cats may not be as easy to train and cats usually require more environmental management. Nonetheless, cats can definitely learn to do many typical dog activities and they gain the same enrichment and other benefits from training activities that dogs do.


This video shows Marie the cat doing basic tricks


One of the first things that owners train their cats to do is to use a litter box - if their mother hasn’t done so already (the cat’s mother, not the owners!) Though this may not feel like training, it is. You are teaching your cat to change her behavior and become a good member of the family. The same is true for any kind of behavioral training. Many owners would like their cats to stop scratching the sofa or to stop other undesirable behaviors, such as jumping on the counter. Cats can usually be trained to stop these negative behaviors fairly easily.


The best way to stop an undesirable behavior is to use positive reinforcement to establish an alternate, acceptable behavior. Striking your cat when she claws the furniture will not get her to stop; it will only make her fear you. Instead, you can reinforce your cat when she claws a scratching post by giving her a treat. This will reinforce the right behavior and encourage your cat to scratch the post instead of the furniture. In other words, focus on what the animal CAN do, rather than what it cannot. Like dogs and every other animal, cats respond best to positive reinforcement to let them know they have done a good job. Punishment can actually cause undue stress and encourage behaviors that pet owners don’t want, such as eliminating outside of the litter box.


It is important not to encourage bad behaviors unintentionally. If your cat starts playing roughly with you and bites you, the best thing to do is to stop playing with your cat and ignore him. This shows the cat that biting causes you to stop playing and will discourage him from doing it in the future. Your reactions, even unpleasant ones, can be stimulating to the cat. This is true in general, remember that nothing is more painful than being ignored. Even negative attention can be positively reinforcing.


Watch this cat perform a variety of impressive tricks


You should also keep in mind that cats typically aren’t as motivated by praise as dogs are. Praising your cat can help, but it probably won’t provide the same boost to a cat as it might to a dog. Using treats is generally a better method of positive reinforcement. The more your cat likes a treat, the better and more effective it will be for training. Depending on your cat’s individual preferences, some good options might be diced chicken, turkey or tuna. Cats are also less instinctively driven to work with humans than dogs are, given the differences in their domestication. This can pose a challenge, but it does not mean that cats won’t work with humans.


Once any problem behaviors are under control, you may want to take the next step and teach your cat basic commands. Contrary to popular belief, cats can be trained to sit on command and walk on a leash. There are even some cats who participate in agility training. However, teaching cats to perform these behaviors requires patience and practice.


Watch the International Cat Agility Tournaments


Trainers must start simply and make sure their cat is succeeding the majority of the time. Repetition is key in this process to ensure the cat is learning and understanding what you want them to do. However, it is also important not to tire your cat out. Some recommend training sessions of about 10-15 minutes per day. You can keep working on the same behavior the next day, but after 15 minutes, you should give your cat a break. Your cat will tell you when it’s time to stop. When she loses interest or stars to wander, give her a final treat to end each session on a positive note. Clickers can be useful in the training of cats to ensure that they receive feedback precisely when they do the desired action. By clicking and then giving the cat a treat, you can eliminate confusion caused by a delay in reinforcement. To establish the clicker, click as you give your cat a treat a few times without training. This will teach your cat to associate the click with a reward.


Training your pet cat can help both you and your pet to get the most out of your relationship. Training helps you to communicate and bond with your animal and provides excellent enrichment. Whether you train your cat to compete in agility tournaments or simply want him to stop tearing up your armchair, training is beneficial in many ways. Why should dogs have all the fun?

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Tree Goats of Morocco

When you think of animals climbing trees, squirrels or monkeys probably come to mind. However, you probably didn’t picture a tree full of goats! Though goats are known for their ability to climb mountains and cliffs, some species are also able to climb trees. It is quite a sight to see, when a tree is full of goats climbing all over its branches and eating its fruit. Tree climbing goats, found in Morocco, often climb the Argan tree to eat its fruit and nuts. Argan nuts are essential to the goats, accounting for 47% to 84% of the goats’ diet. Because of their amazing ability to balance, they are able to climb onto the outermost branches and easily move from branch to branch. In a large tree, goats may climb up to 30 feet off the ground! 

You may have heard about these goats due to the Argan oil they help create. In Morocco, local farmers will often keep goats away from trees until the fruit and nuts have matured, then they release them so they can eat the nuts. After the nuts go through the goats’ digestive systems, they are pressed to create valuable Argan oil. The goats are essential in this process because without being digested, the nuts are too hard to be pressed for oil.

How do goats avoid falling out of the trees? Their cloven feet have two toes that can spread out, providing balance and leverage, while the soles of their feet are able to grip the bark. These goats also have vestigial toes higher up their legs, called dewclaws, similar to those found in dogs and cats. The dewclaws help goats to pull themselves up on branches without falling down.

Video of goats climbing in trees

Tree goats don’t just climb for food. They often linger even when not eating to stand on the edge of branches and gaze out into the world. One study showed that goats spend up to six hours per day in trees. Large herds of goats, occupying a single tree at a time, provide an amazing sight, attracting many tourists to Morocco. Wouldn’t you pay to see a tree full of goats?

Unfortunately, though, the Argan tree is threatened due damage from the goats’ hooves, tearing branches and sometimes stunting growth when the nuts and fruit are eaten too early before they are fully developed. However, the damage can me minimized with proper oversight and management, allowing the goats to continue to producing the Argan oil. This oil is one of the most highly sought after culinary and cosmetic oils in the world, often selling for $300 per liter or more. It can be used to enhance the skin, or can be mixed in food for flavoring. Among humans, Argan oil is considered a superfood and is known to reduce cholesterol. So the next time you include Argan oil in your diet, be sure to thank a goat – but try not to think about the route it took to get to your table

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Barnyard Bullies: Aggression in Geese & Swans

It was a beautiful afternoon in Stanley Park as the ducks floated by on the pond, fish swam beneath, birds chirped in the trees and squirrels frolicked in the woods. Couples were walking their dogs and families were there with their children, enjoying the early summer, when suddenly, a duck began quacking loudly. People gathered to look as the largest swan, at least three or four times the size of the little duck, began swimming after it, as if it was chasing it. The two circled the pond a few times before the swan caught up with the duck, pecking it right in the neck. The duck quacked louder and flapped its wings to get away, but it was pulled under the water. When it came up, it tried to jump out of the pond, but fell back in as the swan continued pecking at it. A small crowd was gathered, watching with the same horrified looks on their faces until finally one man went up to the swan and clapped his hands. When the swan let go of the duck, the man scooped him out of the water and onto the land. The duck walked a few feet away and stopped, grateful to be alive. But many were stuck wondering, why did this act of aggression occur?


You’ve probably experienced goose aggression if you have ever gone to a park to feed the geese and ran out of food. They don’t take that kindly. In fact, it is not uncommon for people to be chased back to their cars by geese after failing to provide infinite supplies bread. And geese can be dangerous; not only can they bite and peck, but they also have extremely strong wings that are capable of breaking bones. While they may be fun to watch, they certainly have a temper. What causes this aggression in geese and why do they assert it so often?

Geese and swans are often aggressive because they are defending their territories. These waterfowl are very territorial and this is often why they show aggression towards other birds. In doing so they may be protecting food, nesting space, or their young. The swan that attacked the duck at Stanley Park may have been motivated by a combination of these factors. This news report shows similar aggression in geese that live in a park. While it may have seemed brutal to the onlookers, it is a natural part of their behavior and the way that these animals interact with one another.


If you encounter an aggressive goose and believe it is going to attack you, be careful. Warning signs of attack can include hissing and spreading of wings. This video shows an example of geese hissing. Geese have excellent vision and pay close attention to eyes and body language. It is important to maintain direct eye contact and face your body directly towards the goose. Never turn away and do not close or squint your eyes. Instead, slowly back away. Do not yell or kick; this will only cause the goose to become more hostile. Basically, you should treat an aggressive goose like any other bully. Back away with your head held high and you’ll avoid the beating that you might have otherwise received!

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